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Morality without smoke

When I went to Catholic school, we got our morals from the Ten Commandments. Apparently they were good and right because no less a figure than God had etched them in stone, somewhere above Mount Sinai, some time long ago. Christianity is one of a handful of the world’s religions that believe this happened; other religions and atheists do not. But isn’t it a question of historical fact; the sort of thing that impartial historians could settle by their usual professional methods? Alas no. It turns out that the tablets were broken later in the story, and the etching event was hidden from witnesses by a considerable amount of smoke:

And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

For present purposes, I shall generalize the term “smoke” to mean any mystical foundation of a moral code.

I should also say what I mean by “mystical”, since a person under the influence of mysticism often doesn’t see anything mystical about it. To himself, his belief might seem perfectly clear and obvious. However he cannot persuade a sceptical audience, no matter how carefully he presents his case, and no matter how patient and intelligent the audience — and that is what I mean by “mystical”.

As far as I know, all religions employ smoke, but not only religions; atheists have been known to blow some too. For example, Ayn Rand’s so-called “objectivists” leapt from the premise “existence exists” to an entire moral system, via steps that no logician would recognize; and “social Darwinists” leapt from Darwin’s description of the survival of the fittest, to a moral code that demands the survival of the fittest. These illogical leaps were mystical, and they were the bases of moral codes, so they fit my definition of smoke.

Maybe some forms of mysticism are harmless, but mysticism as the basis of a moral code –smoke– is anything but. Smoke is noxious, in at least three ways.

Firstly, while smoke is supposed to strengthen morality, it in fact weakens it. For example, if you were to say “Don’t kill people!” and leave it at that, most of the world would agree with you, and then you could go on to make points about specific cases. But if you say “Thou shalt not kill because that’s what God etched in stone, in the sky, behind a pall of smoke”, you will not do so well. You will lose swathes of your audience, because you’re relying on something that they don’t believe, and can’t be made to believe.

Secondly, smoke contributes to xenophobia. If you think that the immorality of killing depends on God’s inscription, and outsiders don’t believe the inscription ever happened, then outsiders must seem dangerous to you: who knows what they might be capable of?

Thirdly, smoking is addictive. Just as you might think outsiders are dangerous, you might fear that you would become dangerous, if ever you were to quit believing in the mystic source of your morals.

I say the world would be a better place without smoke. If that prospect sounds dangerous to you –if you think that a world without smoke would dissolve into chaos and mayhem– then please read on. The purpose of this post is to ease your fear.

To begin, human nature is not the horrible thing that some have imagined. I’m looking at you, Thomas Hobbes:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

That was written in 1651, and since then we have learnt something about evolutionary psychology. It turns out that our genes have equipped us with more than narrow self-interest: we come with innate tendencies towards (among other things) altruism, empathy, loyalty, and retribution. Also society has systems of rewards and punishments to keep us mostly in line, whether we’re innately disposed to it or not.

Still, I acknowledge that we need more. History has shown that our innate goodness isn’t good enough to keep us safe from each other; and, while the criminal justice system is becoming more effective all the time, there are still unsolved crimes, and potential for more of them if we let go of moral right and wrong. Moreover we face moral dilemmas in our personal lives, where the law is absent; and we need an intellectual framework for debating public policy, including questions about what laws we should have. For all these reasons, I am not wishing an end to morality. What I’d like to see is morality without smoke.

About now, you might expect me to put forward some non-mystical basis for morals: something from science perhaps. No, that is not my plan. I don’t believe it’s possible. I’m with the philosopher David Hume, who said we can never reason from matters of fact alone to a moral conclusion: we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.

I can illustrate Hume’s idea with an example. Science tells us plenty of facts about what nuclear weapons do to humans. Knowing these facts –and let’s include all the facts of an economic, military, or political nature too– one ruler might conclude that he should dump all his nuclear weapons into the sea, while another ruler of equal intelligence, in an identical position and knowing all the same facts, might conclude that he should fire his nuclear weapons at his enemy. The two rulers’ factual knowledge is equal, and perhaps very thorough, but it doesn’t settle what they should do. That requires an extra ingredient: a moral principle. Hume tells us that this will be the case every time: facts alone can never settle a moral question. And I agree with Hume because (a) as a matter of logic, I don’t see how you can ever get a conclusion that uses the moral words (“ought”, “should”, “good”, “evil” etc.) from premises that don’t use those words (unless the conclusion is completely vacuous), and (b) to my knowledge, no-one has ever found a way around Hume’s law (and even if some ingenious workaround can be found, we don’t want to put morality on hold while we’re waiting for it).

Summing up so far: basing morals on mysticism is noxious, and basing morals on science alone looks impossible. What next?

One thing we can all do is base one moral statement on another, possibly with some facts thrown in. For example, “It’s wrong to put that wrapper into a paper-recycling bin” (moral) follows from “It’s wrong to put non-paper items into a paper-recycling bin” (moral) together with “That wrapper is a non-paper item” (fact). But this only pushes the problem back: what is “It’s wrong to put non-paper items into a paper-recycling bin” based on? No doubt we can answer by citing some more general moral principle (along with more facts). Then we can be asked what the more general principle is based on, and so on. After a few rounds of this we might get to something very general indeed, such as “Do no harm”, or “We should all respect others,” or “We are obliged to do whatever leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Whichever way we go, sooner or later each of us will hit moral bedrock: a moral principle that is not based on any other.

When you get to that point, and someone asks you what your moral bedrock is based on, my advice is: don’t answer. Keep mum. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Zip it. (Or if you really must have some words to fill an awkward conversational silence, then it’s probably harmless to say any of the following: “It’s a deeply held personal belief,” “It’s just the way I was brought up,” or “These truths we hold to be self-evident”. Just don’t attempt a real defence: don’t attempt to deduce your moral bedrock from anything else.)

Now the complaint will be: Shepanski wants every individual to pick his morals out of thin air, so anybody can say anything, morality-wise, and there will never be any way to debate any issue. It’s a free-for-all. And isn’t that exactly the chaos and mayhem that he promised to offer assurances against?

It’s an over-reaction. Taking away foundations doesn’t take away everything. Let me remind you of some familiar, everyday patterns of moral reasoning that still work fine.

Firstly, we can argue the facts. Let’s say I scold you for putting a certain wrapper in a paper-recycling bin, because (I say) it’s wrong to put non-paper items into a paper-recycling bin; and that wrapper isn’t paper. “But it is paper!”, you might reply, and point to some evidence that I wasn’t aware of. In that way you can challenge a specific moral judgement, without the challenge escalating to any matter of principle.

Secondly, we can argue from moral principles that our opponent already accepts. A potent example comes from the American civil rights movement. Advocates of equal rights for African-Americans would often cite the principle “All men are created equal” (where “equal” has a moral sense). They had no need to argue for that principle, because their opponents were already in the habit or reciting it, hand on heart. They only needed to argue from the principle, to the African-American case.

Thirdly, we can argue against an opponent’s moral principle, even when it is bedrock to him. Remember, “bedrock” only means “a moral principle that is not based on any other”; it doesn’t imply immovability. One way to dislodge a person’s bedrock principle is by drawing out consequences that he won’t accept. Suppose you encounter someone who holds, as a bedrock principle, the sanctity of private property: the principle that it is, in every case without exception, wrong to take another person’s property without their permission. “So,” you probe, “if you saw someone drowning in a lake, and the only way to save that person was by taking an unattended canoe, you’d consider it wrong to take it?” If his innate altruism is in good working order, he’s likely to reject this brutal conclusion, and therefore reject the extreme principle that implied it. Alternatively, if his innate altruism is weak (or if you are a philosopher who has read too much Hobbes), you might appeal to his innate self-interest: “So if you were drowning in a lake, and the only way a passer-by could save you was by taking an unattended canoe, would you consider it wrong for the passer-by to take it?”

Hmm: this is turning out rather better than I had planned. I wanted to show that moral reasoning can survive without smoke, and the canoe example showed it not just surviving but thriving. Precisely because of the lack of smoke, it was possible to talk the opponent down from his extreme position. Had his position been pegged to some mystical foundation, it would have been much harder for him to let it go.

Without smoke, moral principles are pegged to one thing only: our willingness to accept their consequences. Which consequences we are willing to accept is determined, to a large extent, by our evolved psychological tendencies, including altruism, empathy, and self-interest. Within the human species these evolved tendencies are probably more similar than different, so there is hope that our moral principles will converge. Reasoning with one other, as in the canoe example, can bring the convergence forward.

Still, convergence is not guaranteed. If our innate altruism etc. are anything like other evolved traits, they will show some variation from one individual to the next. That’s one possible source of divergence, and here’s another: when a moral principle has a consequence that an individual doesn’t like, he has to decide whether to abandon his principle, as in the canoe case, or to stand by his principle and learn to accept the consequences, as in the civil rights case. Reason exposes the dilemma, and then it’s up to the individual to find a resolution he can live with.

And now I’m long overdue to tip my hat to R. M. Hare:

I wish to draw attention to two features which any such serious moral problem will have, the combination of which seems to confront us, as philosophers, with a paradox, or even an antinomy. The first is that a man who is faced with such a problem knows that it is his own problem, and that nobody can answer it for him.

Against this conviction […], we have to set another characteristic of these questions which seems to contradict it. This is, that the answering of moral questions is, or ought to be, a rational activity.

It is the task of moral philosophy […] to look for a way of reconciling these apparently incompatible positions, and thus resolving the antinomy between freedom and reason.

5 thoughts on “Morality without smoke

  1. Hi Michael,

    I take Hume’s objection about getting from “is” to “ought” – unquestionably true.

    But I never found it to be any great impediment to getting to “ought”.

    What I do is bring it to a point where I can argue that the moral proposition is something that an intelligent self-interested person would want to have happen around them.

    Then (taking hold of rhetoric with both hands) ask searchingly “what kind of society do you want to live in?”

    People are usually happy to make the step from “is” to “ought”.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ben,

      Two points of agreement here: most people do find their way to “ought”s, and they don’t do it by deducing from “is”es (since, as you say, Hume’s law is “unquestionalbly true”).

      I don’t agree, though, that asking an intelligent self-interested person what they would like to have happen around them quite nails it. I suspect that most people, when asked that question, would make use of morals they already have, and so of course they’ll say they want peace and justice for all etc. — which is a perfectly fine answer, /except/ when we’re looking for the origin of those morals. Then it’s circular.

      For your purpose, I think you’ll have to stipulate very clearly to your subjects that you want them to answer on self-interested grounds only — leave morals, altruism, empathy, and the rest at the door. It’s not a natural thing for most people, but if you can really get it across, then I suspect the answers will start getting ugly. At an extreme, they could say “I want to live in a world where everybody serves me“. Or, only slightly less extreme, it could be “I want to live in a world where my race/sex/class etc. is privileged over all others.”

      There’s a long line of philosophers who have tried to build a bridge from rational self-interest to morals, but I don’t think it can work. Here’s another way to look at it: if morality really was derived from rational self-interest, then all that evolution of innate altruism and empathy would have been wasted energy.


      • Hi Michael,

        Yes, I agree that deduction doesn’t make it, and that rhetoric has to be wheeled in to save the day. And imagine the rhetoric required if you wanted to convince someone to be a Kantian!

        But consider for a while an easier task: you could aim a lower than Kant.

        Just say that all you want to do is to convince our intelligent self-interested person to habitually behave in ways that would make it likely for her to gain a reputation for telling the truth. This is of course a long way short of convincing her of always telling the truth. But this task has two interesting features (a) it’s something you can convince an intelligent self-interested person to do (because it actually is strongly in their interest), and (b) people who do that usually end up mostly telling the truth. (That’s the most effective way of gaining the reputation.) Importantly, they are most likely to tell the truth at the times that the truth matters most, because that is when their reputation is most at risk.

        So it’s an attitude that has all the characteristics you want: mostly truthfulness, but particularly when it most matters.

        I should come clean here. I practice this myself. It means a lot to me to have the reputation for truthfulness, and I generally have it. I’ve gained the reputation by being truthful most of the time, especially when it matters. I suppose it would be no surprise for me to admit that I do not always tell the truth.

        Some might see this as a sadly low bar for moral behaviour, but I see it as something that is both pragmatically achievable, and which gives you most of what you want.

        Sigh. I guess what this means is that I am the most recent of that long line who tried to bridge that gap.


      • I think the main point of disagreement here occurs where you say “gives you most of what you want”. Compare with the para in my post that begins “Still, I acknowledge that we need more.”

        Also I get an impression (I could be wrong) that you are reading me as a moral sceptic who needs a “solution” to stave off moral nihilism. My post was meant, rather, to convey optimism about morality, even without foundations.


  2. Pingback: Of Moral Truths and Moral Smoke Screens @ Helian Unbound

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